Posted: 04/ 9/2012 8:35 am Updated: 04/ 9/2012 1:01 pm
Prosecutors dropped the murder charge last August and said another man, still unidentified, pulled the trigger. Teresa Ruffin, the victim's mother, said the police overlooked important evidence -- including a witness who pointed to another suspect -- and allowed her son's killer to go free.
"They didn't do their job," Ruffin said of the police.
Ruffin, who is black, said she sees parallels between how Sanford police officers handled her son’s murder and how they investigated the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot to death Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who told police he acted in self-defense.
Police said they couldn't refute Zimmerman's claim and haven't arrested him, unleashing withering criticism over perceived missteps and favoritism.
"All this with Trayvon is just bringing the light on the Sanford Police Department," Ruffin said. "This happened for a reason."
Martin's killing has sparked national outrage. But it is not the first criminal investigation to upset Sanford's black community, whose leaders say police have repeatedly failed to properly investigate crimes involving black victims.
A string of recent scandals involving department personnel has added to community anger. In the past three years, officers have been caught demanding bribes from motorists, fabricating evidence and drawing weapons unlawfully.
"They're notorious for mishandling investigations, not doing any follow-ups on various leads, or saying that they can't get any leads,” said Turner Clayton, president of the local branch of the NAACP. "When a victim's loved one asks for an update, the only thing they can say is, 'We don't have anything now,'" he said. "Seems like they never get anything at all."
Sgt. David Morgenstern, a Sanford police spokesman, declined to respond to questions about the Trayvon Martin shooting or allegations of sloppy work in other cases. "We're not going to be able to comment on any of that," Morgenstern told The Huffington Post.
Critics of the local police are now seeing their complaints echo on a national stage, with a chorus of prominent civil rights leaders, pundits and politicians joining to denounce the initial Martin investigation as rushed and careless -- and biased in favor of Zimmerman. A special state prosecutor and federal authorities are leading the probe of the Martin shooting, and local police face intense outside scrutiny over their interpretation of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law as well as what experts call a failure to follow basic police procedure.
Among other things, George Zimmerman, 28, was not subject to a criminal background check until after he was released from custody. A possible racial slur muttered by Zimmerman on a 911 call was overlooked. Nearly a week passed before important witnesses were interviewed by the police. Perhaps most crucially, investigators failed to access Martin’s cell phone records for weeks.
Those records revealed that just before he was shot, the teen was on the phone with his girlfriend, who said she overheard crucial moments of the encounter between Zimmerman and Martin.
“Those mistakes should not have been made,” said Andrew Scott, former chief of the Boca Raton police department and a national policing consultant. “They were such rudimentary aspects of an investigation.”
Martin family members and their attorneys relentlessly cited these errors, which echoed through the national media and the blogosphere.
“It has fueled the fires,” Scott said. “The credibility of the agency is now in question.”
'THEY SHOULD HAVE HAD THIS'
Around 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 26, Trayvon Martin left his father's girlfriend's house at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community where he'd been staying for about a week, and headed to a 7-Eleven store to pick up some snacks before the NBA All-Star game. The store was a walk of about a three-quarters of mile.
Martin spent much of his trip to and from the store on the phone with his 16-year-old girlfriend back in Miami. The entire day had been much the same, with the two talking in calls of a few minutes at a time. According to cell phone records obtained by The Huffington Post, Martin was on the phone with the girl from 6:30 p.m. to 6:49 p.m.
Martin made it back to the gated complex just after 7 p.m.
At that point, Zimmerman, patrolling the neighborhood in his vehicle, noticed Martin walking slowly. Zimmerman called 911 to report Martin as a "suspicious person." The call began at about 7:09 p.m.
"This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something," Zimmerman tells the 911 dispatcher. "He's just staring, looking at all the houses ... Something's wrong with him."
The 911 call lasts just over four minutes. Toward the end, Zimmerman says Martin is running and the sounds of Zimmerman breathing hard can be heard as he describes the location to the dispatcher. Some hear what sounds like Zimmerman muttering a racial slur. "These assholes always get away," he then says.
The dispatcher asks Zimmerman if he's chasing the individual. Zimmerman says yes. "We don't need you to do that," the dispatcher responds.
At roughly 7:14 p.m., Zimmerman ends the call. Less than three minutes later, Trayvon Martin was dead from a single gunshot wound to the chest from Zimmerman's Kal-Tec 9 mm pistol, which he carried in a holster on his belt. Police arrived almost immediately and found Martin face-down and motionless in a patch of grass about 70 yards from the back porch of his father's girlfriend's house.
Zimmerman told police that he was the victim of an unprovoked attack by Martin and said he shot the teen in self-defense, according to Bill Lee, the Sanford police chief who has since taken a leave from his job.
After pursuing the teen, Zimmerman said he lost sight of him and began walking back to his vehicle. According to an account Zimmerman's father gave to several media outlets, Zimmerman said Martin approached from behind and angrily confronted him. In Zimmerman's version, Martin punched the watchman in the nose, dropping him to the ground, and violently banged his head into the sidewalk.
Police have not revealed what evidence they have collected. In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, police said they found no one who saw the start of the altercation. Police now direct inquiries about the Martin investigation to the state prosecutor"s office, which declined to comment.
One witness, identified only by his first name, told a local television news reporter he saw Martin "beating up" Zimmerman, who was on his back on the ground. But the man did not see the beginning of the clash, according to a close friend who spoke to him about what he witnessed that night. The friend requested anonymity due to high tensions over the shooting.
Martin's family said police told them the investigation was thorough, but turned up no evidence contradicting Zimmerman's version of events and failed to establish probable cause that he broke the law.
It is now clear that police overlooked Martin's cell phone records.
Attorneys for Martin's family said it wasn't until weeks later, when Tracy Martin, Trayvon's father, was looking through the teen's cell phone bill that he noticed the timing of the last call. The family and their attorneys then contacted Trayvon's girlfriend and heard her account of the night. Lawyer Benjamin Crump, who represents the family, recorded an interview with the girl and provided it with Martin's cell phone records to federal authorities, who by then had joined the investigation.
The logs, obtained by The Huffington Post, show that as Zimmerman was on the phone with the 911 dispatcher reporting Martin as "suspicious," Martin answered a final call from his girlfriend.
The call began at 7:12 p.m. Martin told her that "some strange dude" was following him, said Crump. She told Crump that Martin slowed to see who was behind him. The girl urged him to run, and he picked up his pace. Martin said he thought the man was gone, according to Crump. Instead, Zimmerman was likely closing in.
"He's right behind me, he's right behind me again," Martin told his girlfriend, according to Crump.
"Next thing she hears is Martin saying, 'Why are you following me?'" Crump said. "And she hears a voice that says, "What are you doing around here?' Then she hears what she believes is a push against Martin and the phone crashes to the ground. She can hear them arguing in the background. Moments later, the phone line goes dead."
Phone records show the call ended at 7:16 p.m. Police arrived roughly a minute later.
Martin's girlfriend's contention that Zimmerman shoved Martin at the beginning of the altercation is missing from Zimmerman's story, lawyers for Martin's family said. The girl is a minor whose identity is being kept secret by the family attorneys.
The failure of Sanford police to locate and interview the girl was a crucial investigative oversight, according to Gerald S. Reamey, a former police department legal advisor in Texas and law professor and legal scholar specializing in criminal procedure at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.
"It really casts doubt on the soundness of the entire investigation when you see something like this," Reamey said. "They should have had this piece of evidence."
Federal agents and the special state prosecution team that took over the investigation have now interviewed the girl, the Martin family's attorneys said. The police gave the results of their investigation to state attorney Norman Wolfinger, who withdrew from the case last month. The governor appointed another state attorney to take over.
'AN ELEMENTARY INVESTIGATION'
Reamey said it was possible the Sanford police investigation might have reached different conclusions if detectives had interviewed the girl earlier. "It could be quite useful in the interrogation" of Zimmerman, Reamey said. "It also could be quite useful for the investigator to understand at that point that there is some contradictory evidence."
With the state prosecutor's investigation still underway, it remains unclear whether the failure to interview the girl seriously harmed the ability to prosecute Zimmerman. But the lapse makes the prosecutor's job more difficult, Reamey said. "It's a burden," he said. "It can make a difference."
Investigators made another fundamental error by waiting more than a week to interview a young teen who said he witnessed part of the struggle between Zimmerman and Martin, experts said. Eyewitnesses should be interviewed immediately after a crime, before memories fade, said Scott, the former Boca Raton police chief.
"It's part of an elementary investigation of a very significant crime," Scott said.
Eight days after the shooting, investigators sat down in Sheryl Brown's living room to speak with her 13-year-old son, Austin McLendon. Austin, the youngest among those who told police they saw or heard the fight, was standing behind his family's home the night of the killing, about 20 yards from where it occurred. He recalled seeing a man on the ground, hearing screams and pleas for help, then a gunshot followed by silence.
A 911 recording captured the teen's impressions that night.
"I saw a man laying on the ground that needed help, that was screaming and then I was going to go over there to try and help him, but my dog got off the leash, so I went and got my dog, and then I heard a loud sound and then the screaming stopped."
The dispatcher asks: "Did you see the person get shot? Did you know the person that was shot, or did you see the person that had the gun?"
"No, I just heard a loud sound and then the screaming stopped," Austin replied.
Investigators pushed Austin to identify the man on the ground as Zimmerman, who was wearing a red jacket, he and his mother said. But he said it was just too dark and he was too far away to be sure.
"It was just too much in detail and I couldn't give them the answers that they were looking for," Austin told The Huffington Post.
Scott said an investigator who failed to interview a witness or check cell phone records in a homicide would face serious repercussions. "It's disappointing," he said. "There would be consequences with regard to the investigator that would have done that."
Citing these and other potential errors, including the failure of Sanford investigators to notice what sounds like a racial epithet on Zimmerman's 911 call, Martin's family called for an independent investigation.
Sanford city officials responded with a no-confidence vote in the police chief, who stepped aside temporarily. Wolfinger, the state attorney, quit the case the same day.
In an interview last month, Velma Williams, the lone black Sanford city commissioner, told The Huffington Post that growing outrage over the police handling of Martin's killing was not an isolated incident, and that the town had a "long way to go" toward repairing relations with the black community.
"You have to understand that race plays a role here," Williams said. "No one is conjuring up any of this."
"I think that we can begin the healing process and that can only happen if the city government understands that we must face the reality that there are some serious problems in this city," she said.
RUSH TO JUDGEMENT
For Teresa Ruffin, the Trayvon Martin investigation resurrects painful memories of her son's 2010 murder.
On the night of June 15, 2010, Ikeem Ruffin, 17, was shot and killed by a masked man during a robbery in an apartment complex in north Sanford. Ruffin had just left work and died wearing his McDonald's uniform.
Police found 18-year-old Tarance Terrell Moore standing by the victim and calling for an ambulance, but the teen was already dead. The gun used in the killing was never recovered.
The next day, police charged Moore with robbery and murder in Ruffin's death. He was denied bail and locked in Seminole County Jail awaiting trial.
More than a year later, Seminole County prosecutors dropped the murder charge, which carried a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, in exchange for a guilty plea to a charge of robbery with a firearm. Moore was sentenced to nine years in prison.
The plea was no comfort to Teresa Ruffin, who believes the police rushed to judgment in the case, in part due to Moore's history of run-ins with the law. A year before the murder, police charged Moore with shooting at a patrol car, but the charges were later dropped due to lack of evidence.
"He was there, but he wasn't my son's killer," Ruffin said of Moore. "They just wanted to pin it on him and forget about the killer."
Tim Caudill, Moore's public defender, declined to comment because the case is still eligible for appeal. At Moore's plea hearing in August 2011, prosecutors said they no longer believed Moore fired the fatal shot, but maintained he was still involved in the robbery.
Teresa Ruffin said she's not fully convinced Moore had anything to do with her son's death. She said she wonders why Moore remained at the scene, crying for help, if he was an accomplice.
"Why wouldn't he run too?" she said. "It was very strange."
Ruffin, a pastor, said she feels shortchanged by the police investigation. "They handled it very sloppy," she said. "They don't care because it was another black person shooting another black person."
Such criticisms are hardly unusual. Community leaders and civil rights activists cite a string of homicides involving young black men that they say are unsolved due to lackluster police work.
One crime that rankled black residents is a November 2011 shooting that killed one young man and severely injured two others. Tremaine Patrick, 31, the main suspect, surrendered the next day, reportedly out of fear of street justice. Patrick, who is black, was arrested on suspicion of murder and jailed.
The Rev. Calvin Donaldson, father of one of the men killed in the attack, said police told him several witnesses saw an armed Patrick at the scene. Another witness was prepared to testify that Patrick tried to recruit him as a getaway driver, Donaldson said. Still other witnesses had heard Patrick threaten to kill everyone in the house where the shooting occurred several days before, Donaldson said.
The lead detective, Chris Serino, wanted to press charges against Patrick, Donaldson said, but he was overruled by prosecutors in the office of State Attorney Wolfinger. Serino and state prosecutors would clash again in the Martin case, according to news accounts.
"The investigating officer wanted to levy charges on this young man, but the state attorney's office stepped in and said no," Donaldson said. "Just like in Trayvon."
Patrick was held on unrelated charges for nearly a month, then freed without charges, court records show. Months passed with no action. Numerous calls to police and prosecutors went unanswered, Donaldson said.
"They had a cavalier attitude as far as I'm concerned," he said. "I think it got stuck on the back burner."
OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS
Donaldson convened religious leaders and local activists disturbed by the lack of police and prosecutorial action on crime in Sanford's black community. "We were very aggressive about going after the city manager, the police chief and the state's attorney's office because of the apathy," Donaldson said.
Despite the pressure, there were no results -- until the Trayvon Martin case exploded, he said. Police and prosecutors suddenly showed new interest in the shooting case. Last week, prosecutors filed murder and assault charges against Patrick.
"I think the heat got to them," Donaldson said. "I think they decided that they might as well do something in one of these other cases."
"Nothing happened on my case until Trayvon," he said. "That's when my phone started ringing."
Lynn Bumpus-Hooper, a spokeswoman for the state attorney's office, disputed that the timing of the charges was related to the Martin slaying. Prosecutors had simply been taking their time to build a strong case, she said.
"It's not unusual, especially on a murder case, to go as far as you can go before you make the final filing," Bumpus-Hooper said. "That is what drove the case, nothing else, according to the attorneys who are handling it."
A string of cases involving police misconduct has also strained relations with the black community. The city fell into the national spotlight in December 2011 after video surfaced of a young white man, the son of a Sanford police supervisor, sucker-punching a homeless black man trying to break up a fight outside a bar. The victim, Sherman Ware, fell, striking his head on a metal pole, and the video shows him lying unconscious while his attacker struts and shouts in full view of dozens of onlookers. He can be heard shouting, "Nigger what? Nigger what?"
Police arrived within minutes and obtained video of the assault and sworn statements from witnesses identifying the assailant as Justin Collison, the son of a Sanford police lieutenant. Collison was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car, but was quickly freed without charges.
Tonetta Foster, Ware's sister, said the incident reignited racial tensions.
"It's like a railroad track runs through this place and we're always on one side and they're on the other," Foster said of the town's racial divide. "And the police, no way we can trust them after all they've done to us."
An investigative report shows that Sgt. Anthony Raimondo, the ranking officer at the scene, placed two phone calls to Collison's father within minutes of arriving, then overruled a junior officer's decision to place Collison under arrest.
Instead of charging Collison, the officers released him and filed a request for an investigation into the incident with the state attorney's office.
The next day, Raimondo -- the first ranking officer to arrive at the Trayvon Martin shooting -- defended his decision to other officers at police headquarters.
"If anybody has any issues with what happened last night, talk to me," Raimondo said, according to the report. "But here's my standpoint on it. I'm not in the business of putting cops' kids in jail unless I absolutely have to."
Collison was charged with felony assault only after the video of the attack was broadcast on local television nearly a month later. Raimondo and other officers were later cleared of misconduct, although one senior officer told investigators he believed Collison was afforded preferential treatment because of his father.
Wolfinger, the prosecutor, defended the investigation on Good Morning America.
"So I don't think, at least from what I can tell, there's no preferential treatment and certainly not at this office," Wolfinger said. "I don't see it."
BRINGING THE LIGHT
At a town hall meeting organized by the NAACP at Sanford's Allen Chapel AME Church in late March, men and women with signs calling for "Justice for Trayvon" filled nearly every pew. Children held up bags of Skittles and iced-tea -- items Martin carried from the store the night he was killed.
About 1,000 others rallied outside the church in the city's historic Goldsboro neighborhood, which until Sanford stripped it of its charter a century earlier, was the second all-black incorporated town in Florida.
Hundreds of others, mostly youth, broke off from the rally and marched up 13th Street to the police station to demand the chief's resignation.
Inside the church, residents came forward one by one with tales of pain they say they suffered at the hands of Sanford police. Their complaints filled page after page of a notebook kept by Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, who'd flown in to take part in the rallies and protests scheduled for the coming days.
People talked of sons and nephews who'd been beaten by police officers. One man said he was shot with a Taser for no good reason. A woman nearly came to tears as she talked of a son who she said was beaten by guards at the city jail last year, suffered a seizure and died in his cell. Others said that their loved ones had been killed and police investigations went nowhere.
Jealous said he'd turn his notebook over to the U.S. Justice Department, hoping the agency will review other cases that may have been given little scrutiny.
"I'll never forget. One man stood up and said, 'If you killed a dog in this town they will put you in jail tomorrow,'" Jealous recalled. "Trayvon Martin has been dead for more than four weeks and his killer is still walking around. I think that about says it all."
Jealous called Sanford a "deeply distressed" town with a police department that has shown "a pattern and practice of abuse and discrimination."
But he said the spotlight offers a moment of healing and hope.
"Right now, this moment means that parents who may not have gotten justice are more likely to get justice," Jealous said. "This moment means that a city called Sanford that was in deep crisis long before Trayvon Martin visited it, may finally get something approaching a real resolution to that crisis."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Martin was shot and killed 70 feet from his father's girlfriend's back porch. The distance was yards.